Web Extra Friday, February 20, 2004

Call for ocean policy overhaul

America needs a new ocean policy. That's the message coming out of several sessions at last week's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) annual meeting in Seattle. Based on two state-of-the-oceans reports, one published last summer and one to be published later this spring, the sessions focused on the health — or lack thereof — of America's oceans.

The last time the United States government released a report about the state of the oceans was in 1969. The Stratton Report urged Congress to ramp up exploration and exploitation of the sea's resources "for the benefit of mankind." While the new federal ocean study will suggest success in such exploration, scientists say it will also emphasize the need for a new system for managing the oceans.

Major threats to Earth's oceans:

  • Non-point source pollution
  • Point source pollution
  • Invasive species
  • Aquaculture
  • Coastal development
  • Overfishing
  • Habitat alteration
  • Bycatch
  • Climate chang

-From the Pew Oceans Commission

"One of the big problems is that the way we do ocean management now is disconnected," said Andrew Rosenberg, dean of the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture at the University of New Hampshire, at the meeting. "We look at each piece individually. We look at fisheries separately from coastal development separately from pollution and so on."

The federal report is the result of three years of research by U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, convened by Congress and President Bush in 2000. Rosenberg, a member of commission and former deputy director the National Marine Fisheries Service in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that their 700-page report will call for a national council on ocean policy that would coordinate the work of agencies in charge of everything related to ocean policy. At present, more than 100 federal, state and local agencies have jurisdiction over the U.S. oceans, with no one coordinating all efforts.

The Pew Oceans Commission, which issued their report on the state of the oceans last June, also urged the establishment of a national oceans council. At the AAAS meeting, Leon Panetta, a member of the commission and director of the California State University Panetta Institute for Public Policy, suggested that a presidential advisor lead the council, which would be composed of the heads of ocean- and coast-related agencies.

The Pew recommendations are quite similar, Rosenberg says, to the federal commission's recommendation for a national oceans council. However, he says, the two commissions had different original mandates. The Pew Commission looked primarily at resource management, while the national commission's mandate was to look at all aspects of U.S. ocean policy except national security. "But on the areas where we overlap, the findings about our current situation are by and large the same."

Pew Commission's recommendations:

  1. Enact a National Ocean Policy Act (NOPA) that requires federal, state and territorial agencies to protect, maintain and restore marine and coastal ecosystems, and reorients national and regional decision-making bodies to these ends.

  2. Establish regional ocean ecosystem councils to develop and oversee implementation of enforceable regional ocean governance plans to carry out the goals outlined by NOPA.

  3. Establish a national system of marine reserves.

  4. Establish an independent national oceans agency to address national interests in the ocean and atmosphere and to ensure compliance with NOPA.

Both reports find, Rosenberg says, that non-point source pollution is a huge problem, research needs better funding and policy structure needs an overhaul, as it is currently confused with overlapping jurisdictions and conflicting mandates. "I think we would fundamentally agree on all of those points."

As these commissions release their reports, the American public seems to also have a growing concern for the health of the oceans. In a new AAAS survey of 2,400 Americans, nearly 80 percent of respondents said they believe that human stresses are endangering coastal regions and oceans, and 72 percent said that international agreements should protect the oceans. Nearly two-thirds of the survey respondents said they would eat less of certain seafood if it would help the environment, and more than half of those surveyed support the use of public money for research and technology to reduce pollution.

This is good news for scientists trying to convince Congress and the president of the need for a new ocean policy, Rosenberg says. "Clearly, Congress should be responding to public interest, and there's no question that public interest and public pressure will generate some specific action."

When people get interested in the environment, the president tends to listen, said William Ruckelshaus at the AAAS meeting. Ruckelshaus is a member of the federal commission and was also the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, serving as administrator under presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He says both presidents responded to the environment because "the public demanded it."

Rosenberg says that the commission has been briefing Congress of their findings throughout the research. Although the legislators are cautious about specific recommendations, they are overall very positive, he says. "We have every indication that Congress is very interested." After publication, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy's report will be open for public comment, resulting in a final document with specific recommendations for Congress.

In the end, "we have to convince people the ocean is more than just a nice resource," Panetta, of the Pew Commission, said at the meeting. "It is a public trust that demands our stewardship."

Megan Sever


Pew Oceans Commission
U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy

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